Academic journal article Church History

A Model for Christendom? Erasmus, Poland, and the Reformation

Academic journal article Church History

A Model for Christendom? Erasmus, Poland, and the Reformation

Article excerpt

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My thanks to Paul Knoll, Natalia Nowakowska, Maciej Ptaszynski, and Jim Tracy for their comments on an earlier version of this article.

While the newspaper editor Horace Greeley encouraged nineteenth-century Americans to go west, contemporary scholars who study the religious history of late medieval and early modern Europe have much to gain by turning to the east. Looking east to the lands beyond the Elbe has expanded our view of the religious landscape in a number of critical ways. This was the most pluralistic region of the continent. Here confessional dialogue was more than a conversation between Catholic and Protestant. It was a far broader discussion including groups such as the Utraquists, Uniates, Unitarians and the Unitas Fratrum .1 Looking east also challenges our understanding of chronology. The model of decline and crisis often used to characterize the European church before Luther does not work as well here. Bohemia experienced its own reform in the early fifteenth century. Lithuania did not officially embrace Christianity until the late fourteenth century, and there is debate concerning the full extent of Christianization in medieval Poland.2 Poland is a particularly intriguing case study, for the fortunes of its church in the first half of the sixteenth century defy conventional categorization and offer a number of fascinating insights on the Reformation more generally.

The study of Reformation Poland in the Anglophone world is problematic. The last survey in English appeared nearly a century ago, and while scholars have paid some attention to the kingdom's fascinating anti-Trinitarian communities in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, historians have largely neglected developments of the earlier period.3 In Poland the Reformation was not an "urban event," at least not in the same way that it was to the west. Though Prussian towns in particular showed an early interest in Luther, they did not become the dynamic center of a reform movement that swept through the kingdom. Even less was the Reformation a popular phenomenon. The peasants generally remained unaffected. There were no great revolts inspired by wandering radicals proclaiming a gospel of social equality on a scale akin to Germany.4 Instead, reform began as a discussion among elites. It remained a vibrant and contentious debate many decades before it evolved into an actual movement with recognizable confessional communities vying with one another. One individual in particular assumed special importance in these early debates. Though he never accepted the invitation to settle in Cracow, Desiderius Erasmus was in some respects the very face of Polish reform in the 1520s and early 1530s. Erasmus's relationship with Poland is important for a number of reasons. More than any other figure from the west, Erasmus helped shape the intellectual and religious agenda of Polish society in this period. This relationship also sheds a fascinating light on Erasmus's late career. At a time when attacks were mounting on his work and reputation elsewhere, his standing and influence remained high in Poland. Finally, the humanist's interaction with his Polish friends highlights the importance of the kingdom in a wider Reformation context. The discussions he prompted mattered as they addressed fundamental questions and issues facing Christendom in a critical period of transition.


Erasmus and Polish Elites

When, in September 1524, Erasmus wrote England's Archbishop Warham, "Polonia mea est ," he was making no idle boast, for by this date a veritable cult of Erasmus had emerged among the kingdom's elites.5 It grew and matured off mutual flattery. In his first surviving letter to a Polish correspondent, the royal secretary Justus Decius, Erasmus described the kingdom as one "flourishing in literature, law, customs and religion."6 Several years later he wrote Cracow's wealthy banker Seweryn Boner praising Poland as the land of philosopher kings. …

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